COVID-19 clusters reported at N.C. State, App State and ECU as UNC System continues to grapple with infections

Clusters of COVID-19 infections were reported at N.C. State University and Appalachian State University late Tuesday, just a day after UNC-Chapel Hill abruptly shifted all undergraduate courses online after multiple clusters occurred there.

At N.C. State the cluster — defined by the state Department of Health and Human Services as five or more infections in a related location — was reported at an off-campus house in the 2700 block of Clark Avenue in Raleigh. The house had been the site of a party on August, according to the N.C. State alert that went out Tuesday afternoon. The school did not release information about how many students were part of this cluster of infections but has confirmed that eight members of the campus’s fraternity and sorority community have tested positive.

The school reported that the single day new case total for Tuesday, August 18 was 28 — 27 students and one employee.

A fraternity house was the site of one of the four infection clusters at UNC-Chapel Hill. Unofficial recruitment or “dirty rush” events at that school and others in the UNC System have been a concern for officials trying to curb in-person gatherings to prevent infection.

At App State, a cluster of 11 infections was reported in association with the school’s football team — seven students and four staff. App State, like other UNC System schools, has not instituted mandatory testing for the general student body. But athletes do undergo regular testing.  That is how this cluster was identified, sources with direct knowledge of the athletic testing told Policy Watch Tuesday. Practices have been halted indefinitely.

Last week the Delta Chi fraternity at App State was placed under University Interim Suspension and National Cease and Desist Pending an Investigation for its failure to follow the Joint Council Safety Statement with regard to off-campus social gatherings.

The newly reported clusters follow a cluster of at least 17 cases at East Carolina University reported Monday. Police reported shutting down 20 parties the first weekend students returned to the school, including one with 400 people. Sources on campus say there are a mounting number of infections not yet reflected on the school’s COVID dashboard, which is still showing last week’s numbers.

As Policy Watch has reported, chancellors at individual universities have not been given the authority to end in-person instruction and on campus housing. That authority belongs to UNC System President Peter Hans and the UNC Board of Governors.

The board of governors did not take a vote before the decision was made to shift UNC-Chapel Hill’s undergraduate courses online this week. In a written statement Hans said the decision was only for the Chapel Hill campus and that other campuses had not exhibited similar problems.

It is not clear how that may change as clusters continue develop on other campuses.

Parties and off-campus gatherings appear to be the largest contributing factor in community spread and the most difficult obstacle with which UNC System school are contending as they struggle to re-open in the ongoing pandemic.

“Universities are going to have to work really hard to prevent off campus parties and events with fraternities and sororities from becoming the Achilles’ Heel  that undermines their efforts to reduce COVID on college campuses,” said Dr. Kurt Ribisl, chair of the UNC-Chapel Hill Department of Health Behavior, in an interview with Policy Watch this week.

Ribisl was one of a number of medical experts at Chapel Hill who called for the school to move online even as administrators and UNC System leaders resisted the move.

“Universities can reduce the risk of transmission in classrooms and controlled settings fairly easily,” Ribisl said. “Because they’d be using some of the same approaches used in health care settings. Most classes on UNC campus were virtual. For the few that were in person there was very high compliance [with mask wearing, distancing and other health mandates]. So we really had that down. It’s the off-campus activity that is much harder to control.”

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